Work From Home is dead, long live Work From Anywhere

My colleagues and I published a couple of different views on the future of “work from home” and remote work last Friday — a story that, if analytics is any sign, really struck a nerve with many of you.

That shouldn’t be surprising particularly in the tech industry, where knowledge work fundamentally means we spend the vast majority of our time in an “office.” Everything from minor annoyances (they cut down the size of the Klondike bars in the mini-kitchen!) to massive complaints (I am trying to think through a complex ML algorithm as my open-office colleagues are having a Nerf war!) is magnified given the time we spend in these environments.

Understandably, the mandatory Work From Home situation that many of us find ourselves in is not ideal. Schools are closed, kids are home, internet is wonky since everyone else is home, the dog sitter isn’t coming and there are no cafés to find sojourn. It’s not surprising then that there is something of a popular revulsion and revolt to the whole WFH notion, even as large tech companies like Twitter say they will permanently offer Work From Home as an option.

That’s selling short what is really taking place though. “Work From Home” is terrible branding, precisely because it fails to communicate the fundamental freedom that comes with these new policies. It’s not about further imprisoning us in our homes — it’s about empowering us to think and work exactly where we are personally most productive.

Yes, I know that most of us are sequestered in our humble abodes due to COVID-19, but long-term, the whole point of the flexibility that “Work From Home” provides is precisely that you can work from anywhere. It may be your home — but it may as well be a café, the hospital where a sick family member is located, a beach, a friend’s house, a hotel. The point of flexibility here is to untether our schedules and the stress associated with them and allow our work to happen where we want it to.

Many of us will choose to work from home, and many of us will habitually return to the same working environment each day even if it isn’t our home. That’s fine. Flexibility doesn’t mean constantly changing everything up — it means we can change things when we want and need to.

One big question that has loomed over “Work From Home” policies is this: What if I like my office and the social life of meeting with colleagues? Again, we see the narrowness of the language. “Work From Anywhere” literally means anywhere, including the very office we would normally commute to.

Flexibility means adapting our schedules and our locations for the kinds of knowledge work we are trying to do. Some days are all meetings as we try to coordinate a number of projects. Some days we need to shut out the world and just dive down into writing our novels, or developing a new algorithm, or putting together that big presentation for the all-hands meeting next week. Some days we need a mix of both. Some days we need the comfort of home, while other days we need the comfort of colleagues.

In short, “Work From Anywhere” perfectly encapsulates that freedom and dynamism our schedules deserve.

For companies, the challenge is how to empower a true Work From Anywhere culture, which is way more than the binary of “in office” or “at home.” Many companies already have expense policies that allow employees to buy key equipment for their homes (a monitor, bringing a computer home, etc.) as well as subsidizing home internet access.

But in Work From Anywhere, should companies subsidize coffee purchases or Wi-Fi passes for employees at a nearby café? What about a day pass at a coworking facility? Should the company underwrite employee travel to different cities or places to freshen themselves up with new experiences? How should companies offer mechanisms for distant employees to connect in real life?

Sadly, much of the discussion among executives today is about cost (surprise!). Offices are expensive. Office space per employee has declined over the past five decades under cost pressure, which is one reason for the forced usage of open offices compared to offices with doors that close. There is more collaboration — and a nice savings to the bottom line. Work From Home itself got more popular as broadband internet expanded and companies were looking for new ways to minimize their expenses.

Work From Anywhere may not save a company any money whatsoever. What was once large office complexes may be a handful of smaller venues, with travel and food budgets that will more than make up for any real estate cost savings. This new workplace flexibility is not about saving money, nor long-term social distancing. In the end, it’s an investment in employee well-being, productivity, and ultimately, profitability.